The Case Of The Vanishing Records


At the New York Public Library, where the city’s dirty air appears to be hastening the deterioration of the acid paper, the situation is particularly acute. One of the world’s great centers for original research, the library has a vast and spectacular collection of pamphlets, propaganda leaflets, and the like. Recently a librarian going through photocopies of its unsurpassed collection of anti-Semitic literature—a collection that is an invaluable key to the psychology of ethnic bias—took a look at the originals. Without exception, they had disintegrated to the point where they could not be read. “If someone had not by chance copied them ten years ago, they would have all been lost,” says James Henderson, head of the reference department.

The problem of paper treated with highly acid alumrosin sizing has shown up in unexpected places. Libraries, already threatened with the loss of many of their books, are faced as well with the prospect of having to replace their disintegrating card catalogues, also the victims of chemistry. Art dealers have discovered that water colors and drawings by American artists like Maurice Prendergast and James Whistler are on paper which may not last through the century.

In New York, the matter of paper decay has even entered the civil rights arena. John Henrik Clarke, a Negro historian, recently charged that the Schomburg Collection in Harlem, probably the country’s finest archive of writings by and about Negroes, is deliberately being allowed to decay by the white-dominated New York Public Library that owns it. The collection, gathered by Arthur Schomburg, a banker, in the early years of this century, is indeed in bad shape, but its letters, diaries, speeches, and poems are deteriorating because of poor paper rather than because there is a conspiracy to erase the memory of Negro achievements. Though inadequate library budgets have been a contributing cause, the laws of chemistry deal with Negro and white with an equal hand.

One of the most startling developments in the last few years is the discovery that acids readily migrate from acidic papers to acid-free ones. The results of this have been surprising. The Library Company of Philadelphia, which possesses one of the great collections of early American books and documents, found that its rare Revolutionary War broadsides had been affected by the alum-rosin-sized folders in which they had been kept. A leading New England museum recently acquired a collection of old-master etchings and discovered that the acid matting and backing had damaged them. The Library of Congress has found that a collection of rare American maps given to it in 1903 by the Department of State had been mounted on highly acid pulp board and was disintegrating as a result. Even more startling is the warning by Barrow, in the American Archivist , on the acidity of repair materials: … acidity is a prevalent deteriorative property of both paste and mending tissue. “Repaired” documents, therefore, are not necessarily “saved” documents because the migration process may slowly continue over a long period of time.

America’s most famous fading document—the Declaration of Independence—has been helped on its way to oblivion by uninformed “preservers.” During the Second World War, when the Declaration was kept at Fort Knox, a close inspection revealed that it was mounted on heavy pulp board, and, according to a government librarian, “A strip of tissue paper, about 3/4 inch wide, had been pasted with an adhesive, apparently part glue and part paste, on the mount in the form of a rectangle.” Undoubtedly it has been “treatment” of this sort which has done much to damage our most valued document, although fading ink is a principal cause for alarm.

While acid was doing its worst to all things written or printed on paper, people interested in the motion picture found that the nitrate-based film in use since the invention of cinematography in the i88o’s could have as short a life expectancy as the cheapest acid paper, and moreover, that the aging process of such film was notoriously and dangerously unpredictable. Eastman Kodak developed a much more stable safety film, using an acetate base, for home movies as early as World War I, but nitrate-based film remained the standard for all theatrical motion pictures until about 1950. Cellulose nitrate used as a film base has good optical and physical properties, but like all nitrogen compounds related to nitrocellulose (guncotton), it is not only unstable but highly inflammable. It ignites easily (about 266° F. when new) and burns very quickly—in large quantities, explosively. More serious is the fact that even at normal temperatures it begins to decompose from the moment of manufacture. The decomposition proceeds very slowly and may take many years, but eventually and inevitably every image recorded on nitrate film will have to be transferred to acetate if the image is to be preserved.

Many of the masterpieces of the first sixty years of cinematography have already disappeared. “By no means does the nonpreservation of a film reflect on its artistic or financial success,” says Gary Carey, the assistant curator of films at the Museum of Modern Art, which has been a leader in film preservation.

Very few of the highly popular films made by Norma and Constance Talmadge are extant. Most of the films made by Laureue Taylor and Jeanne Eagels have been lost and with them the record of two of the most famous stage stars of our century. Even the continuing popularity of stars such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers does not guarantee preservation; for there seem to be no prints of the 1935 Roberta they made together.